Tag Archives: Engineering

Deciphering a solar array surprise with Energy3D

Fig. 1: An Energy3D model of the SAS solar farm
Fig. 2: Daily production data (Credit: Xan Gregg)
SAS, a software company based in Cary, NC, is powered by a solar farm consisting of solar panel arrays driven by horizontal single-axis trackers (HSAT) with the axis fixed in the north-south direction and the panels rotating from east to west to follow the sun during the day. Figure 1 shows an Energy3D model of the solar farm. Xan Gregg, JMP Director of Research and Development at SAS, posted some production data from the solar farm that seem so counter-intuitive that he called it a "solar array surprise" (which happens to also acronym to SAS, by the way).

The data are surprising because they show that the outputs of solar panels driven by HSAT actually dip a bit at noon when the intensity of solar radiation reaches the highest of the day, as shown in Figure 2. The dip is much more pronounced in the winter than in the summer, according to Mr. Gregg (he only posted the data for April, though, which shows a mostly flat top with a small dip in the production curve).

Fig. 3: Energy3D results for four seasons.
Anyone can easily confirm this effect with an Energy3D simulation. Figure 3 shows the results predicted by Energy3D for 1/22, 4/22, 7/22, and 10/22, which reveal a small dip in April, significant dips in January and October, and no dip at all in July. How do we make sense of these results?

Fig. 4: Change of incident sunbeam angle on 1/22 (HSAT).
One of the most important factors that affect the output of solar panels, regardless of whether or not they turn to follow the sun, is the angle of incidence of sunlight (the angle between the direction of the incident solar rays and the normal vector of the solar panel surface). The smaller this angle is, the more energy the solar panel receives (if everything else is the same). If we track the change of the angle of incidence over time for a solar panel rotated by HSAT on January 22, we can see that the angle is actually the smallest in early morning and gradually increases to the maximum at noon (Figure 4). This is opposite to the behavior of the change of the angle of incidence on a horizontally-fixed solar panel, which shows that the angle is the largest in early morning and gradually decreases to the minimum at noon (Figure 5). The behavior shown in Figure 5 is exactly the reason why we feel the solar radiation is the most intense at noon.

Fig. 5: Change of incident sunbeam angle on 1/22 (fixed)
If the incident angle of sunlight is the smallest at 7 am in the morning of January 22, as shown in Figure 4, why is the output of the solar panels at 7 am less than that at 9 am, as shown in Figure 3? This has to do with something called air mass, a convenient term used in solar engineering to represent the distance that sunlight has to travel through the Earth's atmosphere before it reaches a solar panel as a ratio relative to the distance when the sun is exactly vertically upwards (i.e. at the zenith). The larger the air mass is, the longer the distance sunlight has to travel and the more it is absorbed or scattered by air molecules. The air mass coefficient is approximately inversely proportional to the cosine of the zenith angle, meaning that it is largest when the sun just rises from the horizon and the smallest when the sun is at the zenith. Because of the effect of air mass, the energy received by a solar panel will not be the highest at dawn. The exact time of the output peak depends on how the contributions from the incidental angle and the air mass -- among other factors -- are, relatively to one another.

So we can conclude that it is largely the motion of the solar panels driven by HSAT that is responsible for this "surprise." The constraint of the north-south alignment of the solar panel arrays makes it more difficult for them to face the sun, which appears to be shining more from the south at noon in the winter.

If you want to experiment further, you can try to track the changes of the incident angle in different seasons. You should find that the change of angle from morning to noon will not change as much as the day moves to the summer.

This dip effect becomes less and less significant if we move closer and closer to the equator. You can confirm that the effect vanishes in Singapore, which has a latitude of one degree. The lesson learned from this study is that the return of investment in HSAT is better at lower latitudes than at higher latitudes. This is probably why we see solar panel arrays in the north are typically fixed and tilted to face the south.

The analysis in this article should be applicable to parabolic troughs, which follow the sun in a similar way to HSAT.

Mechanical design and paper crafting combine in Paper Mechatronics

How can you make a cardboard owl that flaps its wings? Or a paper flower that blooms? With funding from the National Science Foundation, we are working with the University of Colorado’s Craft Technology Lab and the Children’s Creativity Museum in San Francisco to study and enhance the engineering education potential of Paper Mechatronics, an innovative educational technology genre that mixes creative papercrafts, mechanical design, and computational thinking. Soon, young learners will be designing real and fantastical paper inventions of their own imagination and animate them with mechanical motions.

The new two-year project builds off an earlier project by Principal Investigators Sherry Hsi and Michael Eisenberg, which prototyped several Paper Mechatronics design projects, organized activity formats, and piloted the various design elements with children and adults to determine which worked best to inspire learning and teach design. These included a custom software design tool, simple hardware modules, cardboard electronics, sample workshop formats, and project ideas. Early Paper Mechatronics activities—from a percussion workshop to a cereal hackathon and a Robot Petting Zoo—showed encouraging results with after school youth (ages 12-18) and museum visitors.

Mechanical duck designed with Paper Mechatronics.

Robot Petting Zoo.

Paper Mechatronics engaged participants in key engineering design practices (design, build, test), though learners were challenged by translating their visions into mechanical actions. So, to support designers who had no electronics or computer-aided design background and limited computer programming experience, Ph.D. student HyunJoo Oh designed FoldMecha, which generates paper-based templates for a number of design parameters such as shape, size, and type of motor movements that can be cut out with a paper or laser cutter.

 The new project will expand and improve this early Paper Mechatronics design software for modeling mechanical components and movements and create a new Paper Mechatronics kit with instructional resources, electronically enhanced crafting materials, low-cost microcontrollers and accessories, and custom design software.

Our research goal is to explore how to support novice designers in learning from the Paper Mechatronics kit and study how youth develop adaptive expertise, including knowledge-seeking, resourcefulness, confidence, and persistence. We’ll research how on-ramps to engineering design activities like engaging in paper mechatronic design activities help youth develop adaptive expertise and what types of instructional resources and scaffolding are most useful in supporting learners to be creative in engineering design.

Modeling parabolic dish Stirling engines in Energy3D

Fig. 1: A parabolic dish Stirling engine
Fig. 2: The Tooele Army Depot solar project in Utah
A parabolic dish Stirling engine is a concentrated solar power (CSP) generating system that consists of a stand-alone parabolic dish reflector focusing sunlight onto a receiver positioned at the parabolic dish's focal point. The dish tracks the sun along two axes to ensure that it always faces the sun for the maximal input (for photovoltaic solar panels, this type of tracker is typically known as dual-axis azimuth-altitude tracker, or AADAT). The working fluid in the receiver is heated to 250–700 °C and then used by a Stirling engine to generate power. A Stirling engine is a heat engine that operates by cyclic compression and expansion of air or other gas (the working fluid) at different temperatures, such that there is a net conversion of thermal energy to mechanical work. The amazing Stirling engine was invented 201 years ago(!). You can see an infrared view of a Stirling engine at work in a blog article I posted early last year.

Although parabolic dish systems have not been deployed at a large scale -- compared with its parabolic trough cousin and possibly due to the same reason that AADAT is not popular in photovoltaic solar farms because of its higher installation and maintenance costs, they nonetheless provide solar-to-electric efficiency above 30%, higher than any photovoltaic solar panel in the market as of 2017.

In Version 7.2.2 of Energy3D, I have added the modeling capabilities for designing and analyzing parabolic dish engines (Figure 1). Figure 2 shows an Energy3D model of the Tooele Army Depot project in Utah. The solar power plant consists of 429 dishes, each having an aperture area of 35 square meters and outputting 3.5 kW of power.

Fig. 3: All four types of real-world CSP projects modeled in Energy3D
With this new addition, all four types of main CSP technologies -- solar towers, linear Fresnel reflectors, parabolic troughs, and parabolic dishes, have been supported in Energy3D (Figure 3). Together with its advancing ability to model photovoltaic solar power, these new features have made Energy3D one of the most comprehensive and powerful solar design and simulation software tools in the world, delivering my promise made about a year ago to model all major solar power engineering solutions in Energy3D.

An afterthought: We can regard a power tower as a large Fresnel version of a parabolic dish and the compact linear Fresnel reflectors as a large Fresnel version of a parabolic trough. Hence, all four concentrated solar power solutions are based on parabolic reflection, but with different nonimaging optical designs that strike the balance between cost and efficiency.

Analyzing the linear Fresnel reflectors of the Sundt solar power plant in Tucson

Fig. 1: The Sundt solar power plant in Tucson, AZ
Fig. 2: Visualization of incident and reflecting light beams
Tucson Electric Power (TEP) and AREVA Solar constructed a 5 MW compact linear Fresnel reflector (CLFR) solar steam generator at TEP’s H. Wilson Sundt Generating Station -- not far from the famous Pima Air and Space Museum. The land-efficient, cost-effective CLFR technology uses rows of flat mirrors to reflect sunlight onto a linear absorber tube, in which water flows through, mounted above the mirror field. The concentrated sunlight boils the water in the tube, generating high-pressure, superheated steam for the Sundt Generating Station. The Sundt CLFR array is relatively small, so I chose it as an example to demonstrate how Energy3D can be used to design, simulate, and analyze this type of solar power plant. This article will show you how various analytic tools built in Energy3D can be used to understand a design principle and evaluate a design choice.

Fig. 3: Snapshots
One of the "strange" things that I noticed from the Google Maps of the power station (the right image in Figure 1) is that the absorber tube stretches out a bit at the northern edge of the reflector assemblies, whereas it doesn't at the southern edge. The reason that the absorber tube was designed in such a way becomes evident when we turn on the light beam visualization in Energy3D (Figure 2). As the sun rays tend to come from the south in the northern hemisphere, the focal point on the absorber tube shifts towards the north. During most days of the year, the shift decreases when the sun rises from the east to the zenith position at noon and increases when the sun lowers as it sets to the west. This shift would have resulted in what I call the edge losses if the absorber tube had not extended to the north to allow for the capture of some of the light energy bounced off the reflectors near the northern edge. This biased shift becomes less necessary for sites closer to the equator.

Energy3D has a way to "run the sun" for the selected day, creating a nice animation that shows exactly how the reflectors turn to bend the sun rays to the absorber pipe above them. Figure 3 shows five snapshots of the reflector array at 6am, 9am, 12pm, 3pm, and 6pm, respectively, on June 22 (the longest day of the year).

As we run the radiation simulation, the shadowing and blocking losses of the reflectors can be vividly visualized with the heat map (Figure 4). Unlike the heat maps for photovoltaic solar panels that show all the solar energy that hits them, the heat maps for reflectors show only the reflected portion (you can choose to show all the incident energy as well, but that is not the default).

There are several design parameters you can explore with Energy3D, such as the inter-row spacing between adjacent rows of reflectors. One of the key questions for CLFR design is: At what height should the absorber tube be installed? We can imagine that a taller absorber is more favorable as it reduces shadowing and blocking losses. The problem, however, is that, the taller the absorber is, the more it costs to build and maintain. It is probably also not very safe if it stands too tall without sufficient reinforcements. So let's do a simulation to get in the ballpark. Figure 5 shows the relationship between the daily output and the absorber height. As you can see, at six meters tall, the performance of the CLFR array is severely limited. As the absorber is elevated, the output increases but the relative gain decreases. Based on the graph, I would probably choose a value around 24 meters if I were the designer.
Fig. 4: Heat map visualization

An interesting pattern to notice from Figure 5 is a plateau (even a slight dip) around noon in the case of 6, 12, and 18 meters, as opposed to the cases of 24 and 30 meters in which the output clearly peaks at noon. The disappearance of the plateau or dip in the middle of the output curve indicates that the output of the array is probably approaching the limit.

Fig. 5: Daily output vs. absorber height
If the height of the absorber is constrained, another way to boost the output is to increase the inter-row distance gradually as the row moves away from the absorber position. But this will require more land. Engineers are always confronted with this kind of trade-offs. Exactly which solution is the optimal depends on comprehensive analysis of the specific case. This level of analysis used to be a professional's job, but with Energy3D, anyone can do it now.

Modeling linear Fresnel reflectors in Energy3D

Fig. 1: Fresnel reflectors in Energy3D.
Fig. 2: An array of linear Fresnel reflectors
Linear Fresnel reflectors use long assemblies of flat mirrors to focus sunlight onto fixed absorber pipes located above them, thus capable of concentrating sunlight to as high as 30 times of its original intensity (Figures 1 and 2). This concentrated light energy is then converted into thermal energy to heat a fluid in the pipe to a very high temperature. The hot fluid gives off the heat through a heat exchanger to power a steam generator, like in other concentrated solar power plants such as parabolic troughs and power towers.

Fig. 3: Heap map view of reflector gains
Compared with parabolic troughs and power towers, linear Fresnel reflectors may be less efficient in generating electricity, but they may be cheaper to build. According to Wikipedia and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Fresnel reflectors are the third most used solar thermal technology after parabolic troughs and power towers, with about 15 plants in operation or under construction around the world. To move one small step closer to our goal of providing everyone a one-stop-shop solar modeling software program for solarizing the world, I have added the design, simulation, and analysis capabilities of this type of concentrated solar power technology in Version 7.1.8 of Energy3D.

Fig. 4: Compact linear Fresnel reflectors.
Fig. 5: Heat map view of linear Fresnel reflectors for two absorber pipes.
Like parabolic troughs, Fresnel reflectors are usually aligned in the north-south axis and rotate about the axis during the day for maximal efficiency (interestingly enough, however, some of the current Fresnel plants I found on Google Maps do not stick to this rule -- I couldn't help wondering the rationale behind their design choices). Unlike parabolic troughs, however, the reflectors hardly face the sun directly, as they have to bounce sunlight to the absorber pipe. The reflectors to the east of the absorber start the day with a nearly horizontal orientation and then gradually turn to face west. Conversely, those to the west of the absorber start the day with an angle that faces east and then gradually turn towards the horizontal direction. Due to the cosine efficiency similar to the optics related to heliostats for power towers, the reflectors to the east collect less energy in the morning than in the afternoon and those to the west collect more energy in the morning and less in the afternoon.

Like heliostats for power towers, Fresnel reflectors have both shadowing and blocking losses (Figure 3). Shadowing losses occur when a part of a reflector is shadowed by another. Blocking losses occur when a part of a reflector that receives sunlight cannot reflect the light to the absorber due to the obstruction of another reflector. In addition, Fresnel reflectors suffer from edge losses -- the focal line segments of certain portions near the edges may fall out of the absorber tube and their energy be lost, especially when the sun is low in the sky. In the current version of Energy3D, edge losses have not been calculated (they are relatively small compared with shadowing and blocking losses).

Linear Fresnel reflectors can focus light on multiple absorbers. Figure 4 shows a configuration of a compact linear Fresnel reflector with two absorber pipes, positioned to the east and west of the reflector arrays, respectively. With two absorber pipes, the reflectors may be overall closer to the absorbers, but the downside is increased blocking losses for each reflector (Figure 5).

Simulation-based analysis of parabolic trough solar power plants around the world

Fig. 1: 3D heat map of the Keahole Plant in Hawaii
Fig. 2: SEGS-8 in California and NOOR-1 in Morocco
In Version 7.1.7 of Energy3D, I have added the basic functionality needed to perform simulation-based analysis of solar power plants using parabolic trough arrays. These tools include 24-hour yield analysis for any selected day, 12-month annual yield analysis, and the 3D heat map visualization of the solar field for daily shading analysis (Figure 1). The heat map representation makes it easy to examine where and how the design can be optimized at a fine-grained level. For instance, the heat map in Figure 1 illustrates some degree of inter-row shadowing in the densely-packed Keahole Solar Power Plant in Hawaii (also known as Holaniku). If you are curious, you can also add a tree in the middle of the array to check out its effect (most solar power plants are in open space with no external obstruction to sunlight, so this is just for pure experimental fun).
Fig. 3: Hourly outputs near Tuscon in four seasons

Fig. 4: Hourly outputs near Calgary in four seasons
As of July 12, I have constructed the Energy3D models for nine such solar power plants in Canada, India, Italy, Morocco, and the United States (Arizona, California, Florida, Hawaii, and Nevada) using the newly-built user interface for creating and editing large-scale parabolic trough arrays (Figure 2). This interface aims to support anyone, be she a high school student or a professional engineer or a layperson interested in solar energy, to design this kind of solar power plant very quickly. The nine examples should sufficiently demonstrate Energy3D's capability of and relevance in designing realistic solar power plants of this type. More plants will be added in the future as we make progress in our Solarize Your World Initiative that aims to engage everyone to explore, model, and design renewable energy solutions for a sustainable world.
Fig. 5: Hourly outputs near Honolulu in four seasons

An interesting result is that the output of parabolic troughs actually dips a bit at noon in some months of the year (Figure 3), especially at high altitudes and in the winter, such as Medicine Hat in Canada at a latitude of about 51 degrees (Figure 4). This is surprising as we perceive noon as the warmest time of the day. But this effect has been observed in a real solar farm in Cary, North Carolina that uses horizontal single-axis trackers (HSATs) to turn photovoltaic solar panels. Although I don't currently have operation data from solar farms using parabolic troughs, HSAT-driven photovoltaic solar arrays that align in the north-south axis work in a way similar to parabolic troughs. So it is reasonable to expect that the outputs from parabolic troughs should exhibit similar patterns. This also seems to agree with the graphs in Figure 6 of a research paper by Italian scientists that compares parabolic troughs and Fresnel reflectors.

The effect is so counter-intuitive that folks call it "Solar Array Surprises." It occurs only in solar farms driven by HSATs (fixed arrays do not show this effect). As both the sun and the solar collectors move in HSAT solar arrays, exactly how this happens may not be easy to imagine at once. Some people suggested that the temperature effect on solar cell efficiency might be a possible cause. Although it is true that the decrease of solar cell efficiency at noon when temperature rises to unfavorable levels in the summer of North Carolina can contribute to the dip, the theory cannot explain why the effect is also pronounced in other seasons. But Energy3D accurately predicts these surprises, as I have written in an article about a year before when I added supports for solar trackers to Energy3D. I will think about this more carefully and provide the explanation later in an article dedicated to this particular topic. For now, I would like to point out that Energy3D shows that the effect diminishes for sites closer to the equator (Figure 5).

Modeling parabolic troughs in Energy3D

Fig. 1. The absorber tube of a parabolic trough
A parabolic trough is a type of concentrated solar collector that is straight in one dimension and curved as a parabola in the other two, lined with mirrors. Sunlight that enters the trough is focused on an absorber tube aligned along the focal line of the parabola, heating up the fluid in the tube (Figures 1 and 2). If the parabolic trough is for generating electricity, the heated fluid is then used to vaporize water and drive a turbine engine. A power plant usually consists of many rows of parabolic troughs.

Fig. 2. A view from the absorber tube.
Parabolic troughs are another common form of concentrated solar power (CSP), in addition to solar power towers that Energy3D has already supported (there are two other types of CSP technologies: Dish Stirling and Fresnel reflectors, but they are not very common). According to Wikipedia, there are currently more parabolic trough-based CSP plants than tower-based ones.

In the latest version of Energy3D (V7.0.6), users can now add any number of parabolic troughs of any shape and size to design a solar thermal power plant.

Fig. 3: Parabolic troughs at different times of the day

Parabolic troughs are most commonly aligned in the north-south axis so that they can rotate to track the sun from east to west during the day. This kind of trackers for parabolic troughs works in a way similar to the horizontal single-axis tracker (HSAT) for driving photovoltaic solar panel arrays. You can observe their motions when you change the time or date or animate the movement of the sun in Energy3D. Figure 3 illustrates this.

Like photovoltaic solar panel arrays, parabolic troughs have the inter-row shadowing problem as well. So the distance between adjacent rows of parabolic troughs cannot be too small, either. But unlike solar power towers, parabolic troughs do not have reflection blocking issues among mirrors. Figure 4 shows this.

This new addition greatly enhances Energy3D's capability of modeling CSP plants, moving the software closer to the goal of being a one-stop shop for exploring all sorts of solar solutions. In the coming weeks, we will start to build 3D models for parabolic troughs in the real world.
Fig. 4: Inter-row shadowing in parabolic trough arrays

Khi Solar One

Khi Solar One (KSO) is a 50 MW solar power tower plant located in Upington, South Africa, which was commissioned in February, 2016. KSO has 4,120 heliostats on 346 acres of land. Each heliostat is as large as 140 square meters, reflecting sunlight to a tower as tall as 205 meters. KSO has two hours of thermal storage. The power plant is expected to generate a total of 180 GWh per year.

A low-resolution simulation of Energy3D predicts that on February 28 (close to when the Google Maps image was most likely taken) and June 28 (a winter day in the southern hemisphere), the total daily input to the solar tower (not the output of electricity generated by the turbines) is about 2.6 MWh and 1.9 MWh, respectively, as is shown in the graphs below.

The Energy3D model of the KSO can be downloaded from this web page, along with other solar power plants.

Creating computer models for all solar thermal power plants in the world

Fig. 1: Energy3D models for six solar power towers
Fig. 2: The Gemasolar Plant
One of the unique features of Energy3D is its ability to model, design, and simulate solar power towers. Figure 1 shows the Energy3D models for six solar power towers: Gemosolar (Spain), PS10 (Spain), PS20 (Spain), Greenway (Turkey), Themis (France), and Badaling (China). To support the research and development on concentrated solar power (CSP) -- a solar power solution alternative to photovoltaic (PV) arrays that may be able to provide some baseload capacity, I have been working on creating a library of 3D models for all the existing and planned solar thermal power plants in the world. The ultimate goal is to develop Energy3D into a versatile CAD tool for all forms of CSP (and PV), based on accurate simulation of existing plants first. The acquisition of the capability of reliably modeling both CSP and PV will enable Energy3D to truly support our Solarize Your World Initiative.

Fig. 3: The Gemasolar Plant
Fig. 4: The Gemasolar plant (June 30)
This article shows a bit of progress towards that goal. I have recently added in Energy3D weather data for scores of sites that already have CSP plants or are planning to build CSP plants. Many of these new sites are in Africa, China, Europe, and South America (some of them were requested by our users in Algeria and Chile). These newly added locations bring the total number of sites supported in Energy3D to more than 250. This growing network should provide you weather data that are approximately applicable to your site (but let me know if your site is not currently covered by Energy3D to your satisfaction). When you import your Earth view in Energy3D, the software will automatically choose the supported location that is closest to your site. If there is already a power tower, you can use the length and direction of its shadow in the picture to estimate the date and time when the picture was taken -- this can be done by turning on the shadow and adjusting the date and time spinner of Energy3D until the calculated shadow approximately aligns with the real shadow. After this is done, the heliostats that you add to the scene will approximately point to the same direction as in the image.

In this article, I picked the impressive Gemosolar Thermosolar Plant near the city of Seville, Spain as a showcase. The plant has 2,650 heliostats on 520 acres of land, each of which is as large as 120 square meters. The tower is 140 meters tall. The annual output is approximately 110 GWh. With molten salt tanks, it can store up to 15 hours of energy. Using a low-resolution setting, it takes Energy3D 5-10 minutes to complete a daily simulation and up to a couple of hours to complete an annual simulation. If you can afford to wait longer, you can always increase the simulation resolution and improve the accuracy of results (e.g., more points on the reflectors better account for blocking and shadowing losses).

A Mickey Mouse-shaped solar farm

Fig. 1: An aerial view of the Mickey Mouse-shaped solar farm
Fig. 2: An Energy3D model of the Mickey Mouse-shaped solar farm
If I didn't tell you that this is an actual solar farm near the Epcot Theme Park in the Disney World in Orlando, Florida, you probably would think this is some kind of school project done by kids. But no, this 22-acre 5 MW project was designed and installed by Duke Energy and it has been powering Disney World's facilities since 2016 (Figure 1 is an image from Disney.com). So this is some kind of serious business and has drawn a lot of media attention. The solar farm is so new that even the latest version of Google Maps in May 2017 still does not show it (it is available through Google Maps API that we are using, though).

By shaping the beloved Mickey Mouse character with tens of thousands of solar panels, Disney World has delivered a strong message to the world that the company is committed to a sustainable future.

Fig. 3: A solar radiation heat map representation (June 22).
But who says that kids should not do this? Perhaps they couldn't do it because of the lack of appropriate support and tool. Not any more. Thanks to the support from the National Science Foundation, our powerful Energy3D software and our Solarize Your World curriculum can probably turn every wild imagination in solar power into virtual reality, particularly for children who may need more inquiry- and design-based activities that connect so deeply to their world and their future. Figure 2 shows a model of the Mickey Mouse-shaped solar farm in Energy3D and Figure 3 shows a heat map representation of the solar radiation onto the solar panel arrays.